My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”


“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying - in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  - I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death

soundoff (4,494 Responses)
  1. Hope

    I am calling my family right now to tell them I love them very much. Thank you for a great article.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  2. Tom Paine

    Bless you, and those fortunate enough to have you at their side.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  3. J

    This article is full of distortions of biblical truth. It's well and good to speak so highly about family. I too love my family and they are constantly on my mind and heart. However, the author muddies the relationship with have with God with the love we have for other people. The first commandment is to love the Lord thy God with all of your heart, all of your mind, all of your soul and all of your strength. God comes first, family second. To say that God isn't a relevant subject and that we don't need the bible, that it is all summed up in the love that you have for your family is ridiculous. It's at these times that we need God the most. It also confuses the way that we love God. Jesus said if we love Him we will obey His commands, and those who do abide in His love. Love isn't simply having feelings towards it eachother, it serving God and doing His will. That is how we demonstrate our love in the actual.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • rick

      Family comes first

      January 30, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • Hope

      One day you will understand the meaning of this article

      January 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • boodlesntx

      J, It seems to me that you missed the point of this article completely. Just because people don't think or feel just like you, dosen't make them wrong.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • rick

      One can show love within another religion, or no religion at all

      January 30, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Amy

      J – this is about what the PATIENT wants to talk about, not what YOU or the PROFESSOR wants them to talk about. If a patient wants to be retrospective and contrite, then let him/her. You sound like a terribly judgmental person who would tell someone that they should be talking about God and the Bible even though they don't want them to. A good chaplain, rabbi, friend...LISTENS! Who are you to steer the conversation? These are people's last thoughts – if that's what they want to talk about to make them feel better, then it's not about you and want you want.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Jorge

      And in that tack of semantics, of loving God above all things, of obeying him and blindly doing his will, we will continue to discriminate and to fight holy wars and to hear men with two faces tell us that they are His middlemen and to pander for politicians and to condemn science, which is merely the study of His design, as we have for centuries. No thank you, I will continue to discover the meaning of His love and forgiveness through my children and family, which bring me closer to Him as they have for decades. If anything, I have grown weary of the fey, salesmanlike nature in organized religion where money is however involved. You worship your God of tall spires and self-righteous, dramatic fists that bang upon the tops of pulpits, I'll worship mine.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • David B

      J, nicely explained. Now kook liberals would like to re-write the Bible!

      January 30, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Kaci

      Could not find anywhere in her piece where she says God is not relevant. And I'm sure that she doesn't need a theology lesson from you; she appears to be quite learned in that respect. It is clear in all of your "pontificating" you have missed the point of her point entirely in your mad dash to "correct" her. So glad for her patients that she is at their bedside as a chaplain instead of you.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • m

      you are fully of crap...If this is what youare going to be concerning yourself with at the time of your last days, you're going to die a very frantic and scared death, worrying about if the you lived for the lord enough...I was with my father when he died of cancer and he made a point in his last month of living to ask each of his children if he'd been a good father...The question blew me away...that's what was on his mind...not if he'd been a good enough christian...He brought me to tears...he was concerned about me and the rest of us and wanted to die contented and reassured that we would be okay after he was gone...

      January 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • David B

      Amy, if the dying didn't want to talk about faith and God and afterlife, etc., they wouldn't be
      asking for a chaplain, but maybe a therapist, friend, loved one, etc.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • NEOhio

      J is right. Hell is real. Heaven is real. The bible says these things are true, look it up for yourself and see if any of these things are out of context. So the question is ultimately do you believe that the Bible is the truth? If so, read it! Are you a sinner? I definitely am. But I know that Jesus paid the penalty for my sins. Read the following passages for yourself (it helps to get the context of the scripture surrounding each verse). There is much more to the Bible then what is listed below but here is the general outline of what Christians believe. Don't just assume you've heard it before and there's nothing to it. Read it! It might just save your soul!

      "As it is written, there is no one righteous, not even one." (Romans 3:10)
      "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
      "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23)
      "Jesus answered, 'I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' " (John 14:6)

      Jesus is the only way to Heaven. All other roads lead to Hell. Reject him in this life and he will reject you (because of your sin) in the next.

      For further reading: The Bible, duh! But, if you want more in depth of the "Roman Road" - http://theromanroad.org/

      January 30, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • rick

      NE Ohio....wow, Hell and Heaven are real because the Bible says so....I guess that clears it all up

      January 30, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • rick

      David B: How did this become a political issue?

      January 30, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • rick

      "Now kook liberals would like to re-write the Bible!"

      And others feel that translated, edited Bronze Age hearsay represents the Word Of God (TM)

      January 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • Amy

      David – if they asked for a chaplain, why aren't they then talking about God and the Bible? Why are they choosing to talk about their families?

      January 30, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  4. Kent K

    Thank you for such a moving article

    January 30, 2012 at 7:22 am |
  5. Liz

    I could feel myself getting enraged at how that professor treated you... truly very ignorant indeed. How can someone not see that love and all of our experiences with it, is the closest we ever come to whatever we perceive as God? Kerry, this was an amazing article and you are doing good work in the best way possible. If that professor is still around, I'd love to know what he must be thinking about that student who seemed to know more about how to get people to talk about "God" than he ever did. Just wondering... Your piece was very real, very inspiring... Thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • boodlesntx

      I wonder what this professor will be talking about on his death bed.

      January 30, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  6. Rob

    Sweet and moving story. Thank you

    January 30, 2012 at 7:03 am |
  7. Hawkins

    All I have to say is WOW!!!! I know that my not mean much to many especially seeing as you wrote such of an amazing article. Most of the time when I read an article, I am reading just to see what it says. I started out the same on this one. By the end of this article and hearing the message from it, I was intrigued and lost deep in thought.
    I am a Hospital Corpsman in the United States Navy. I too have woked with cancer patients before and it is an experience I will never forget. Families are a big deal in the military. We always are taught you have many families, but two that are always more dominant that the others. You have your military family and your actual family.
    Reading about how family is the spiritiual way of God, made me realze how much your writing was really touching my heart. Ultimately, I am thanking you for your very unique understanding to relegion and bringing joy into my heart here away from my family deployed in Afghanistan. Thank you.

    January 30, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  8. Laureth

    If I were in the hospital and dying the last person I would want in my room would be that professor.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • Bob

      That professor is the perfect of example of why those that can't, teach instead.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  9. Sam

    I am glad that this Chaplain figured out the reality or truth better than the professor did.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:41 am |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things
    The joy of God is strength
    In the morning
    Commit your day to prayer
    And fellowship with God
    Prayer changes things

    January 30, 2012 at 6:40 am |
    • Mirosal

      Doesn't change a thing, and your own beliefs and doctrines prove it.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • just sayin

      mirosal doesn't know what he is how could he possibly know what the prayer advocate believes?

      January 30, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  11. Lynn Kamp

    This story really says a lot. Listening is one of the best things you can do for a friend or family member, or even a stranger. That person doesn't need to be close to death, one can listen anytime if we take the time.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  12. Susan

    Kerry, thanks for putting into words the experience of so many chaplains and ministers. People often ask me what do I do as a hospital chaplain. I do many things, administrative, worship planning, staff support, patient and family care, but nothing is more sacred than listening to and being with the dying. Your words have made it easier for me to begin a Monday morning.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:28 am |
  13. Publius

    Why is Ms. Egan afraid to talk about God in relationship to the dying's family? If the dying talks of the love they withheld, it is simple to remind them, it is never too late to share their love. Even in death, their love can be shared. God is Love. By being closer to God, we are closer to Love. Most importantly, the comfort the dying can have is to know no matter what has happened on Earth, they can go to into the Loving arms of God. Make their journey a peaceful and blessed one. Absolutely let them talk of their love for others, but include God in those talks, too. God should be in their closest family, too.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • George, (not THAT one)

      Do you know, when in the history of comparative religion, Westerners began to say "god is love" ?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:31 am |
    • Jim Foxvog

      "God is love" seems to come from the first epistle of John, probably authored between 65 and 95 A.D.

      1John 4:8 He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.
      1John 4:16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (RSV)

      January 30, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • Mirosal

      You still do NOT need any kind of ceity in order to love someone. So I guess the other 5 billion humans on this planet who do NOT follow your little book are incapable of loving anyone?

      January 30, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • Bill

      I am an old man, my time is short. By my bed I have an icon and a picture of my father, mother, and grand mother. I spend more time talking to my parents than God or prayer. The reason, they gave me all their love and protection. On my death bed I will be talking about them and hope if there is another life I can be with them again. In regards to God, well I don't worry about him, I killed no one and stole from no one and lead a normal life, so I have no fear.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      I would think that as Atheists we are more capable of love because we have dropped the need for a sky daddy. We have learned to love via our own abilities and not that as taught by a 2000 year old book. We tend to be able to judge people with a more open, rational mind than theists do. We don't place conditions on our love in the same way.
      Spewing verses from a buybull only makes one look foolish...almost as if they are incapable of thinking for themselves.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • ScrimScrambled

      @Truthprevails-Funny, you lost me when you contradicted yourself in the same breath!

      "We tend to be able to judge people with a more open, rational mind than theists do. We don't place conditions on our love in the same way.
      Spewing verses from a buybull only makes one look foolish...almost as if they are incapable of thinking for themselves."

      January 30, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      Hang around, liar prevails goes from dinghy to stupid and back again faster than a speeding bullet. If that is the effects of atheism gimme shelter

      January 30, 2012 at 7:55 am |
    • Jared

      Bill, It isn't about a checklist or weights and balances.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  14. DocdeWitt

    Thank you for sharing this. It was a nice way to start my week, and put life in perspective.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:13 am |
  15. Fall

    A very touching article as death is a obscure and clueless world. We need to think about death more often in order to understand life. The article mentions love and family as signs of God's presence. I totally understand this as family is one important group that unites through the power of love. Unbelievers usually say we cannot see him or ask where is he? Think about love as it shows a climbs of God's power.
    Family is golden. Parents, relatives, friends all are components of family. Take a second to think about the powers that link us and only then we will understand life and remember death.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  16. Jesus C.

    Being a good listener eases the anxiety a person who is dying feels.

    January 30, 2012 at 6:07 am |
    • rick

      absolutely. i watched my mom die (from emphysema) many years ago. she just needed someone to listen

      January 30, 2012 at 6:10 am |
  17. John K

    Very interesting article for it gives me a good reason to reflect on dying. In my situation my children have left me due to my fathers estate in which they took me to court over. We did mediate it and I offered them a 68% of this estate so we could settle it, which we finally did and that was over 12 years ago. Since then we have not spoken and I will go to my death with this situation. I have told myself that I do not really want to go beyond 70, that gives me about just under 2 years left, so I must give this article some serious thought as I try and prepare myself to my maker and dying. Thanks again for your wisdom!

    January 30, 2012 at 5:27 am |
    • George, (not THAT one)

      Very sorry to hear about that. I also have a greedy family. THE worst possible scenario is to mix up ANY financial affairs, and ANY family members. Depending on your family genetics, you could have another 30-40 good years. "Family" can mean many things, not just biological. Ever thought that, "living well is the best revenge" ? If they heard you were ecstatically happy, THAT would be the best revenge, (and make sure you give them NOTHING else). All the best.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:50 am |
    • charles

      this may be more for George than for John – if you understand the article at a deeper level, Kerry did say that one can learn to forgive – even in the total absence of love. That can make wonders. John, if you start now, you may very well have a family to talk about (or with) on your death bed. Or you may want to go to 80, 90, or beyond because it is so good. George, no need for a revenge on a family. Try forgiveness.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  18. Richard

    It took a smug piker to rile you up enough so all of us could read your story. I would like to give that guy a good beating, but I'm glad we all got to know your story, very touching.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:20 am |
  19. Ed

    For 9 years, i have had the privilege of being in a similar role... Except that my patients only thought that they were going to die. I am a physician who runs a heart surgery program. In those 9 years I have seen thousands of people the night before they were going in for open heart surgery.

    I took a similar tactic to the author. Often I would simply listen. My experience was a little different & it may largely have to do with my appearance. Many people assume me to be religious, so perhaps that's why their discussions often did include God. (I happen to be a covert to Islam, but that only came up if they asked & for the purposes of this comment, it is irrelevant)

    In fact, in the past 9 years there have only been 3 topics people discussed, regardless of their race, religion (even atheists), culture, gender, or primary language: they only spoke of (1) God, (2) family, and (3) relationships with other people & regrets/joy for those relationships.

    So, I think it is great that people are moved by articles like this. But here's something that I got to see that the author didn't. I got to see people get better (physically recover). And what was astounding to me was to see the number of things in our world that pull us away from this pre-death perspective. The distractions start almost immediately with the TV, conversations about sports, etc

    The key is what will you do with it right now... While you have this perspective. Who will you hug? Who will you call and say "I'm sorry" to? Who will you call & say, "I love you" to? Right now... Before someone or something distracts you. Stop reading these comments and do it now.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:14 am |
  20. Patricia Philbin

    Great article Kerry and thank you for your dedication.

    Your professor was doubtlessly well educated, yet an ignorant man...

    January 30, 2012 at 4:43 am |
    • Publius

      Many are taught, few learn.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:23 am |
    • UncleBenny

      Publius "Many are taught, few learn."

      Many are taught, few learn to think for themselves.

      January 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
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